Sunderland got their full backs high up the pitch, and went wide early
As I touched upon in my Talking Tactics piece on Wednesday morning, the main way that Sunderland changed their approach compared to how they were playing under Jack Ross was by playing with much more width.
Whilst in a few games Ross went 4-4-2 and kept his wingers wide and his full backs defensive, Phil Parkinson took this further in an attacking sense and pushed both his full backs up the pitch – as shown by the high average positions of Hume (33) and O’Nien (13) (below) – and kept Gooch (11) and Watmore (14) wide in the build-up stage, before they were allowed to make diagonal runs from out-to-in to stretch the Tranmere defence as Watmore did for his goal.
It should be noted that, in the image below Watmore appears to have played centrally, however his average position is misleading as he played parts of the game in the centre with Maguire (7) playing on the right wing. Gooch (11) is a good example of how wide Sunderland’s wingers played.
The importance of the full backs to a performance which was heavily based on getting attacking players in behind the Tranmere defence down the channels cannot be understated, and it would be fair to claim that the full backs – rather than the centre midfielders – were the playmakers on the night.
The table below shows that out of the top five most frequent passing combinations in the Sunderland side, Hume or O’Nien were involved in four of them. This highlights their importance to the side.
Sunderland made their possession count, but Tranmere let them
Whilst the possession statistics paint a picture of a rather even game, possession of the football was split 53-47 in the home side’s favour - and if we dig a little deeper, into those stats we start to see why Sunderland were so much more dominant that 53-47.
Sunderland simply used the ball more and were able to keep possession further up the pitch than the visitors. Of Sunderland’s 110 instances of possession during the game, 65 times this resulted in the home team getting at least into the Tranmere half, and 45 times Sunderland were able to enter the final third – the area of the pitch from which chance are more easily created.
These stats make grim reading for Micky Mellons’ Tranmere, who were only able to enter Sunderland’s third of the pitch 31% of the time they had the ball – a significantly lower number than the hosts’ 41%.
Phil Parkinson can hardly be called a manager who likes to have more of the ball than his opponents, and in some ways that is shown by the relatively even possession stats on Tuesday night.
However, that should also force us to look at how far Sunderland’s good intent – and execution of this intent – on the ball on Tuesday was down to their own impressive performance or to the visitor’s allowing them to play in this way.
Tranmere undoubtedly did let Sunderland play, and were too soft a touch to have really put them under any pressure. This is shown by the fact that the away team made only won the ball back from Sunderland four times in the home team’s half across the entire 90 minutes. Sunderland won the ball in the Tranmere half three times as often in the same period.
With sterner tests sure to come, it will be interesting to see whether or not Sunderland can build on the most positive of starts and continue to use possession effectively against teams who aren’t as passive without the ball as Tuesday night’s opponents were.